Friday, June 05, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “The Depths of the Forest,” by Eugenio Fuentes

(Editor’s note: This is the 53rd installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Dagger Award-winning UK novelist Ann Cleeves, whose latest book--the third entry in her Shetland Quartet--is Red Bones, already out in Britain and scheduled for publication in the States in September.)

The Depths of the Forest, published in Britain seven years ago, triggered my love affair with translated European crime fiction, a passion that has continued until today. I was working then in a library and persuaded the Arts Council of England to fund a project to bring European crime novels to a wider public. We worked with independent presses such as Eugenio Fuentes’ publisher Arcadia, to get books out to library reading groups, to run events and develop promotional material. The Depths of the Forest (originally published in Spanish in 1999) was a favorite with all of our readers and it’s still a surprise to me that the book isn’t better known. The story’s setting--the magnificent landscape of the Paternoster nature reserve in central Spain--the complexity of Fuentes’ characters and the fine translation all deserve further recognition.

It begins dramatically with the death of Gloria, a beautiful artist, in the wilderness she knows so well and where she feels completely at home. Soon after, a hiker is killed in the same place. Private eye Ricardo Cupido investigates Gloria’s death, finds himself fascinated by the woman and by the Madrid art world she inhabited, and becomes drawn into the puzzle. Through an exploration of her friends and acquaintances, we discover the victim for ourselves; she becomes more human and complicated, less attractive perhaps but far more interesting.

Cupido is a classic private detective, cynical about cops and women, with a sad and mysterious past. His past, the reason for Cupido’s isolation, is never explained. Reading the novel, this seemed rather clever to me; it added to the enigma of the character and to the shifting, ambiguous nature of the plot. Later I discovered that there were earlier books in the series, which have never been translated into English, so no doubt the back story can be found in those. This isn’t a case of the author leaving intentional gaps for the reader as I’d supposed, but of a publisher who has chosen not to make the earlier works available. A much simpler explanation!

The Depths of the Forest is a book about obsession. Obsession with a woman certainly, but more powerfully, obsession with a place. The landscape of the Paternoster lies at the heart of this book. It’s more than an atmospheric backdrop to the action, though it certainly performs that function brilliantly; it has molded the central characters and it makes sense of the plot. There is one scene, involving the killing of a stag, which sticks in the mind with such force that it remains long after the details of the story are forgotten. There’s no sentiment in Fuentes’ tale and no descriptions of a pretty countryside. The Paternoster is a harsh and unforgiving place, and that’s reflected in the brutality of the people who live close to the reserve and whose lives are shaped by it.

This isn’t a perfect detective novel. The resolution comes together well, but the structure doesn’t quite work, and the way Cupido reaches his conclusion about the identity of the murderer isn’t entirely plausible. But it is a compelling story, beautifully told. Those readers who enjoy the Nordic writers for the clarity of their prose and the subtlety of their characters, should try Fuentes.

Perhaps because their settings aren’t so immediate or so disturbing, the succeeding books in the Cupido series haven’t made such an impression on me. They don’t seem to have the same grandeur or scope. They’re more domestic, tighter, though still very well written. And both are set up beautifully. The Blood of the Angels (published in English in 2007) begins with protagonist Julian finding a gun in his dead mother’s apartment. His life is in crisis: his wife has just left him, he’s suffering from bereavement after his mother’s death, and his beloved daughter Alba is having emotional problems. What should he do with the gun? He can’t face going to the police, so he locks it in his bank’s safety deposit box. The next day he finds out it has disappeared. Then a teacher at his daughter’s school is shot. So a wonderful beginning, but although I read this book more recently than The Depths of the Forest, I can’t remember much of the detail of its story. It doesn’t pack the same sort of emotional punch.

His most recent novel, The Pianist’s Hands (2008), has a quirky set-up that reminded me of Fred Vargas at her idiosyncratic best. The pianist of the title, frustrated by the lack of interesting or challenging work as a musician, develops a lucrative sideline: he’ll kill animals for a fee. These are mostly pets that are suffering or have become inconvenient to their owners. The pianist isn’t a sadist; he’s an unhappy man fulfilling a service. Then he’s offered a lot of money to kill a person. Although he accepts the contract, he finds he can’t go through with it. When his potential victim is murdered, the pianist uses his fee to hire Cupido to find the killer. This is an intriguing beginning, but the book never quite comes to life for me. The other characters don’t hold my interest. Cupido, however, does reveal himself a little more. His mother has moved, without consulting him, into a care home and we learn something of the relationship between them and of his earlier family life.

A new English-translated Fuentes novel, At Close Quarters, will be published in October of this year. I’ll be looking out for it. I hope the author has opened up his writing, let more air in, given us some of the wildness and drama of The Depths of the Forest.

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